Some will tell you to limit the number of characters thus avoiding readers becoming lost, but how does an author manage that when creating the crew of a ship representing many nationalities? I suppose a writer could focus on only a couple.
Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and from days long past, Charlie Chan detective series and others have sizable casts. In the Chan story there are a number of murder suspects. In the others, there are characters that pop in and out, their parts separated by several chapters or even volumes. What can a writer do to make them memorable?
In the computing world tags are employed to quickly find information salted away in the gigantic reservoir of data. When populating a story where a number of characters the writer wants remembered as they pop in and then disappear for a time, re-emerging later. Giving them a tag is a way to quickly identify a them to the reader. These tags come in the form of quirks, habits, mannerisms, traits, or physical things such as appearance or costume.
Tags may be drawn from any aspect of the character’s appearance or behavior such as:
Voice – A pirate has a voice like a heavy log drawn across gravel, and a limp from an old wound, the pain causing him to be perpetually cranky. When he appears it is not always necessary to identify him by name. “As [the captain] stood glaring at the stowaways, he heard a heavy thump of someone climbing the stairs behind him.” Without saying any more, the reader will think, “Oh, oh, here comes trouble.”
Physical Features – A particular seaman has a weasel face with an Adam’s apple that moves up and down especially when nervous. Several chapters later, “[The captain] stared at the seaman whose Adam’s apple twitched as he attempted to formulate a lie.” The reader will say to themself, “Oh, yeah, weasel face.”
Physical Abilities – Jeremiah is a mid-teen on his first, real sea voyage. He knows nothing about a ship, referring to the bowsprit as “That pointy thing on the front of the boat.” He is faithful, and willing, and proves that his blue eyes are extra keen which allows him to spend time aloft in the crow’s nest. As he says, “It doesn’t smell like below decks.” He also has a cast iron stomach to handle the ship’s motion. When the best lookout is needed, who will the reader think should be sent aloft? [Not weasel face. He’s feeding the fishies.]
Dialect or Speech Mannerisms – An English soldier has all the makings of someone Maggie [a woman pirate] would seriously consider sharing a bed with until he opens his mouth and in a snooty, childish-pitch, says, “Humph,” a sound he uses frequently. Toward the end of the story he is not identified by name, but by the use of “Humph,” when speaking, first when among the English conspirators, and just before meeting an untimely and unpleasant demise, and just reward.
Physical – Cochran is a blond Irishman with a freckled complexion susceptible to sunburn and wears more clothes than most of the crew, so few are aware of the nasty scar on his left shoulder. Those who have followed the series will remember (vaguely) a likable young man from volume 2 as he appears in volume five because of the scar. He is jovial sort and an inveterate story teller through which he teaches valuable lessons.
Gestures – A seaman who swipes at his constantly running nose.
Scent – A seaman who smells as if he’d been bathing in the bilge despite having been tossed overboard with a bar of soap when the ship was becalmed. It’s possible to know when he appears before entering the action.
There is an endless laundry list of quirks, habits, mannerisms, traits, and physical things available that can become tags and add reality to your characters, but be careful about using too many for one character that can become distracting. Just one or two tags, little mnemonic devices to help your readers keep the actors straight as they pop in and out.
A great place to find ideas are the lists in other’s eFiles. Some of these were mentioned in a previous post. Another resource are the movies, specifically looking at the body of work of some of great character actors such as:
Christopher Lloyd or Johnny Depp